Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Wasicu at Chankpe Opi: A White Man at Wounded Knee V

A single troop—who knows who?—tried to wrestle Black Coyote, one of the Sioux men. Some say he was deaf. At the same moment, the medicine man gets to his feet, picks up a handful of dust, and throws it at the soldiers, his shrieking exhortation continuing in the Sioux language. The soldier and Black Coyote wrestle for the possession of a rifle, while down the line another soldier begins struggling with another for a rifle wrapped in the blanket covering one of three young men standing close together. The medicine man keeps telling his people white bullets will not harm them.

One shot. Whose was it? Did it come from Black Coyote in the struggle? No one knows for sure. But in a moment all hell broke loose, and, for less than a half hour, what follows is a fierce and bloody battle waged hand-to-hand in a council circle soon choked by dust and smoke, and thick with bullets, most of them from army issue rifles, bullets that flew indiscriminately, killing many of the Sioux in the middle, as well as bluecoats on either side. That the cavalry could have avoided shooting each other at such close quarters seems impossible, despite claims to the contrary in military hearings conducted later.

An old woman who used to live down our street claims that out here on the prairie we get only about ten sweet days a year. Prairie cold locks life in its frigid jaws; the heat wilts anything that grows; and always, the wind blows. In the summer, it’s capable of sand-blasting your face; in the winter, its bite is not only dangerous but deadly. But that morning, December 29, 1890, the wind stood still. When you look down now, from the promontory where the First and Second Artillery have been firing those Hotchkiss guns into the horror beneath them, imagine a cloud of dust and smoke so thick as to stop breath. In seconds, in the very middle of the fray, combatants cannot see each other, but blindness doesn’t stop the killing. Seventeen miles away, at the Pine Ridge Agency, people claimed to hear the firing.

Just exactly who fired first might never be established, but there is no question whose rifles ended the massacre. With the first shots, hundreds of Lakota women and children run away into that ravine you see just beyond the fighting. With dozens of their own down in the middle of the madness, Forsyte’s men are in no mood to take prisoners, so for several hours after the bloody combat that began in front of Big Foot’s tent, scattered gunfire continues as far as three miles away, up and down the ravines that cut through the tawny prairie around the creek called Wounded Knee. What began in intolerable heat ended in cold-blooded murder.

If you’d like, perhaps you could walk down into those ravines, no more than a half mile from where we’re standing. There are no markers anywhere, like the ones at Little Big Horn, no whited stones to mark the spots where people fell. But even in their absence, ghosts linger.

That afternoon, when the shooting ended, Army personnel loaded 39 of their wounded into wagons, along with their dead, 25. Fifty-one wounded Sioux were located, 47 of them women and children, some of whom—like six of the cavalry survivors—would soon succumb to their injuries. The Sioux dead were left on the field and in the ravines, but exactly how many had been killed will never be known. Native people consider 300 a fairly just estimate.

That night, a blizzard came in on the wind and laid a gossamer veil over the carnage—some say mercifully; some think the hand of white man’s God was simply covering their sin. Wounded Knee was the final military action in the Plains Indians Wars, the horrid, bloody conclusion of a cultural and religious confrontation that, from my vantage point, a white man at Wounded Knee, looks even today like something obscenely inevitable. Millions of white people—my own Dutch immigrant ancestors among them—went west for cheap land they assumed the Sioux didn’t value. After all, where were the improvements, the tree lines, the fences, the buildings, the cut sod? Millions of white people—my own ancestors among them—thought our holy book to a pagan people was a generous gift for the millions of acres those people had once roamed in freedom. My own family included, we wanted to own what they wanted to honor.

But the Lakota people lost far more than those buried on the hill where we’re standing. They lost what the cavalry and the government called “the battle”; they lost the war; they lost their way of life. “And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard,” Black Elk says. “A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
Tomorrow:  Aftermath

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